The Politics of Shame

Luke 18:9-14  He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt:  (10)  "Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  (11)  The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  (12)  I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’  (13)  But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’  (14)  I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted."

You know, the bible has a lot of practical lessons in it. All I had to do in my reading this morning was insert other words for “Pharisee” and “tax collector.” How about “two people went up into the temple to prayer, one was a man and the other a woman…” Or insert “Democrat” and “Republican” or “Evolutionist” or “Creationist.” Or how about “Two people went up into the temple to pray, one was Barack Obama and the other Sarah Palin….” You get the idea.  And yes, we can easily reverse all of the above insertions and still it would make sense. When I did all that, I knew I had to say something out loud.

During Advent, I always start questioning my spiritual beliefs, not because I am afraid of hell, as I used to be as a fundamentalist Christian, but because I’ve grown so much in the last couple of years that I have to check in with my own spirit to realize what it is I really do believe.  And I realize that we live in a culture of shame. Some of us are ashamed of our beliefs in the wake of backlash and some of us, who should be ashamed, aren’t. But I can’t be concerned about them. I can only change myself.Butterfly

Yesterday, I got my picture taken for our staff directory. In times past I absolutely hated to get my picture taken. It’s a rare person that loves it, but I have never loved it. So, when I got to view the results instantly on a digital camera, for the first time in my adult life, I was not ashamed of my picture. I was amazed at myself. Why? Because I’m fat. By everyone’s standards today, I am considered fat, even obese. Although some views of fat and obese are obviously skewed mightily by the diet industry funded BMI community. So, yesterday, when I saw my picture, I thought, “Yep, that’s me and it looks just like me.” For the first time, I felt at home in my skin. What was my miraculous turnaround attributed to? Love of course. The love of friends and the love of a man who loves me just as I am. This love has convinced me that if I don’t love myself, others will anyway, but I will just make it that much harder by my bitching and moaning about weight, when I don’t mind my weight at all. It seems to be others who mind it for me.  (to catch up on the politics of fat, read Kate Harding and her links)

Another thing that struck me this week, during this season of Advent, was how much shame is being generated by religion, some completely from biased individuals, but some unnecessarily from religion itself. Even I have wanted to distance myself from the Christian community because of the stupid acts of a few. Fortunately for me, I work in a church where pastors and members display acts of love and charity and caring beyond anything I’ve ever experienced outside the Christian community.  My counselor finds it significant that even though I have a love/hate relationship with God, I continue to work in a church and am fine with that. This is interesting. I think I do because it allows me to be part of the church, but with as much aloofness as I like. These people don’t spend their time arguing minutiae of doctrine or this and that “law.” They spend their time buying gifts for a community wide distribution day at Christmastime. They give to St. John’s Breadline which feeds the hungry. They donate their time to Meals on Wheels. They give blood to the Red Cross. They help the unfortunate in Darfur. They go on Mission Trips to repair housing for the poor.  It’s enough to make me ashamed that I can’t be bold enough to claim that I believe because of shame in the internet community.

This does not mean I endorse fundamentalism of any stripe. This does not mean the bible holds complete truth, as written by men. It doesn’t mean I have hard and fast rules about other people’s sex lives or that I automatically subscribe to everything other Christians believe. It only means that I believe in a Spirit that I can only call Divine. This means I believe this Spirit is best embodied in Jesus Christ.I don’t know what that means “doctrinally” and I don’t care.  I believe that it takes more that buildings, rituals, and texts to make a Christian who is filled with this Spirit. And I also believe that I can’t deny it in public any longer. Call me ignorant. Call me deluded. Tell me I’m fat and therefore stupider than most of the population. Tell me or call me anything you like. It doesn’t change the sweetness of the Spirit when I cooperate with it in my life. I will not be ashamed any longer.

Blessings.

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“Cursed is the One Who Trusts in Man..”

People who’ve read this blog know my struggles. They know the problems I’ve had with faith and with churches and with the bible.  I’ve turned my back on all three and I’ve turned to one or the other at various times since then. At one time, I thought I had the answers. Now I know I don’t. It’s clear to me that I will never have peace about it. When things are at their toughest I know where I choose to turn, but faith has to be more than just a fail-safe method when faced with hard times, illness, or even death.

During my recent struggles with major life changes (moving, divorce, illnesses) I’ve sometimes turned back to those things I swore I wouldn’t and I’m still confronted with the same old platitudes that make no sense to me. The bible is full of them. Church is full of them. Yet no one can explain what they mean or how it should be lived. For example, I am going to attend a series of studies put on by a local non-denominational church for those going through separation and divorce. I’m doing it for the support mainly, but of course there will be bible study and discussion. None of my hard questions are ever really answered there. I’m convinced that no one will be able to answer them, but studying them is still something I’m willing to entertain. Well, to set the tone of the support group, a series of emails are being mailed to me with short devotions about divorce. In yesterday’s devotion I was struck by this:

When you are making decisions regarding a new relationship, do not make any decisions based on your feelings. Feelings are temporal and not always rational, no matter how strongly you may feel them. Be wise and take the time to grow and to build your life on a strong foundation…The Bible says you should not depend on humans—yourself or other people—to be strong for you. You must only depend on God. “This is what the LORD says: ‘Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who depends on flesh for his strength and whose heart turns away from the LORD'” (Jeremiah 17:5).

I can’t begin to tell you how many times Christians have said this in worship, in bible study, in prayer meetings, on television, on the internet, everywhere. Yet, no one can tell me what that really means. First, how can any human being NOT rely on feelings when feelings are all we have to communicate danger, anger, fright, love, etc.? What does it mean to shut down all feelings when decision making? I’d like an example. When faced with two decisions of equal weight and import, feelings are always the deciding factor, aren’t they? And what does it mean when someone writes “do not depend on humans–yourself or other people–to be strong for you. You must only depend on God.”??

God is an immaterial entity that does not directly interact with human beings in any discernibly supernatural way. When we need groceries do we pray for them? No, we wait until we have money and we buy them. Or someone takes pity on us and gives them to us. Was God being depended on in this situation or people? I’d say the people. Yet, we are “cursed” if we turn to them for help and not “the Lord.” Harsh. Christians always like to say that other Christians are “God with skin on.” Yet when Christians fail to help other Christians the failure is always on the part of those who “lacked faith.” This is cheap simplistic faith in my opinion.  If faith is true and worth anything, it needs to wrestle with the hard issues and not fall back on plastic platitudes that mean nothing in reality.

I am really struggling still with questions like these and how that’s supposed to play out in reality and I’ve been “converted” since 1983! I can’t settle for the easy answers because they mean nothing. Some Christians say they have numerous answers to “prayer” yet others say theirs are never answered. Would any of us dare to say that those who don’t receive are at fault for “lack of faith” or “depending too much on people for strength?”  I wouldn’t dare say that. Arrogance doesn’t become us in that instance. There are times that I’d really, really like to rely on my faith again, especially when things get tough. But, in the midst of it, I’m reminded of the less than comforting answers like those above. So, I’m still going to that bible study, which starts in September. And I’m going armed with questions like these. Any thoughts before I go?

Interface and Outerface

I like the new Interface WordPress has got on their login page. Much more Twitterish and social site-ish. Makes it far more inviting to click on the top stories and blog posts for the day or week.

Re-reading old posts, I’ve realized that my “outerface” has changed quite a bit as well. I suppose it’s no secret any longer that I also blog over at Gorgon Resurfaces and at first glance this blog and that one seem juxtaposed in a weird way. But, then again, I guess we all have our public and private faces.  I’ve learned much in the last couple of years and while I take issue with over-the-top politics and over-hyped social issues or even issues that I think are touted at alarming levels when there’s not much people can do to alleviate them, I do realize that moderation in all things is the key.  Writing from both sides has curiously allowed me to meet myself in the middle.

Over here I rant. Over there, perhaps I reason and am more introspective. Here is my pop culture, political impatience persona and there is my Goddess-y, be at one with the planet persona. Here, I contemplate Christianity and even entertain it once in a while. There, not so much except in the sense that I want to leave it behind once and for all. However, I don’t give up on the idea of a Divine power in the universe, hence the Goddess emphasis.  I have always felt bifurcated in some way spiritually and politically and I feel that more and more both extremes of my personality are coming together and that perhaps… perhaps I can finally become the integrated spiritual, political, and pop cultural loving kind of person that I want to be. But I’m still working on it. Slowly and surely.

Wake Up Call to Christians

I can’t stress enough the importance of reading this article at Exploring Our Matrix. He outlines what is wrong with the religious “right” in far more generous terms than you’ll find from the left. Civility is called for and his voice is it. A foretaste:

What is wrong with being on the right? There are voices in our time that seem to be leaning further and further in that direction, even though they would claim to abhor what Hitler did. Yet all it takes for history to repeat itself is a nation leaning in that direction, a leader willing to use the language of Christianity and conservativism to manipulate the populace and exploit their faith and enthusiasm, and a failure to care when those we disagree with are persecuted and punished. The spirit of the far right is absolutely antithetical to the heritage and foundations of American democracy. And it is precisely that democracy that protects Christianity as well as all other religions to present their case, to make their appeal, to urge any and all who will listen to follow their lead and adhere to their values and convictions – whether they are about abortion, social justice, or the editing of Veggie Tales on NBC.

It is only a faith that is insecure that wants to force itself on others through legislation, because of a lack of trust in the persuasive power of the message itself. It is only the faith of the proud that claims absolute certainty, as opposed to humility and absolute trust in God as the only one who truly knows with certainty.

Easter Musings

At the height of the Christian season, as we wade through numerous television shows on the History and Discovery Channels about Jesus, the resurrection, and bible mysteries, conversations everywhere rage about the veracity of religion. Reg has a good take on this and the role irony plays in our ability to self-reflect on our own belief systems. Head over to Tangentville and tell him what you think!

Religious Ambivalence

So what’s new, right? I’ve been the queen of religious ambivalence as long as I can remember since coming out of my christian fundamentalist daze. Some evangelicals label my kind of religiosity “non-committed” or they call us “church shoppers,” when really it comes down to disagreeing more with personal issues than that; namely dogma. I came across this article this morning and it explains exactly how I feel about religion. Some people feel it’s not possible to be of two religions. But I don’t see what difference it makes. Especially when institutional religion, for me, is more about style of worship than personal conviction. Since no one dogma/doctrine of institutional religion defines me and I can never wholly ascribe to a particular one, then why sign on to a brand of Christianity? One should just go to the church that fulfills one’s worship needs; silence, liturgy, music, etc. What has been your experience?

New Perspective on “Old” Temptations

Explorefaith.org has always been one of my favorite Christian web sites. Produced by the Episcopal Church and those in ecumenical communion with them, Explore faith has been one of the few places that has ever challenged my faith in new ways. Their gentle spirit is evident and best of all, on their About Us page, they do not list the bible as their chief idol (unlike some christian churches, web sites, domains, etc.) I like that, mainly because the one turnoff of the fundamentalism I left behind was the insistence that God only works in the world through this one set of writings. This extremely limiting belief keeps millions from fully understanding the love of God, whatever that is or wherever that may be manifested in the world.

Michelangelo Eve detail

Michelangelo Eve detail

This view of scriptures has kept me from acknowledging a merciful and loving Deity precisely because belief in this prohibitive doctrine is so insidious to an individual’s thought processes. Again, mine were damaged I think by the incessant drilling into it of dogma and doctrine  insupportable from the evidence offered outside of a few lines of ancient text. Sure, there are great things in the Hebrew and Christian texts that, together, comprise the “bible.” However, there are great things in all the world’s spiritual texts, each of which display a facet of human understanding about this thing most call “God.” However, when we elevate what others have said about God and ascribe qualities to this written body of experiential knowledge; qualities that should only be ascribed to Deity, we tread on dangerous territory I think. When is it good to part company with established dogma when it runs counter to what we know to be true from experience? Our growth is stunted and eventually spirituality dies out if we constantly deny and repress true experience. One’s spiritual, mental, and physical life cannot be circumscribed to such a degree and remain any kind of life at all.

With that in mind, I have had to restructure my faith in such a Deity and simultaneously re-examine my relationship to that particular book, which, for many, many years, became almost a talisman for me. I’ve been half afraid to pick it up again and read it because of the ingrained processes that fundamentalism implants into the unsuspecting brains of those of us who were too open and eager and hungry for spiritual food to be very discerning. Yet I didn’t want to dispense with the wisdom in it altogether. I knew that Progressive Christians such as the Quakers and others gain much insight and wisdom when they put scriptures in their proper context. I needed to recognize that the trigger for me was trying to absorb everything within the bible’s pages as absolute and unequivocal truth, unprocessed through human thinking; in other words, seeing the bible as straight unfiltered God-talk. When in fact, it’s not God-talk but Human-talk with a God-tinge.  There is truth contained it it, but it’s spiritual truth and not necessarily factual truth; something the individual soul must discern for herself.

With that caveat, I’ve been wanting, during this Lenten season, to re-examine my beliefs because frankly, I miss them (and truth be told, I miss examining them, which is what this blog started out to do). Explorefaith has wonderfully pragmatic resources for processing Lent, one of which is to journal your way through it. This isn’t a new practice, but they do ask good questions. This Sunday was the 4th Sunday in Lent and the journaling prompt was this:

Week Four: TEMPTATION
All that we desire in life is not beneficial to us. We often are pulled away from what is helpful and healthy because we feel a lack of excitement, energy and enthusiasm in our life as it is. The seed of temptation begins to grow subtly within us, and we begin to find ourselves moving in a direction we had not planned, a direction we know is risky, a direction that promises more than it will ever deliver. Dealing with temptation is as much about rediscovering the wonder of our current life as it is about avoiding that which is alluring and seductive. Lent invites us to turn from temptation by turning toward what is helpful and healthy for us and finding there again what is life-giving. Take time this week to return to what feeds your life and captures the best part of your passion and soul.

journaling questions:
What in my life has become so familiar that I am tempted to find something new, and how can that familiarity be revived so that its previous exhilaration is restored?
* In my family?
* In my work?
* In my community?
* In my soul?

I have some problems with some of the assumptions in this meditation. First, how do we know that moving in a new direction “promises more than it will ever deliver?” Second, why is temptation always described as harmful? Now it’s clear that when people think of temptation they think of two words: sex and food. Nobody ever says that they are tempted by too much reading or excessive writing practices. The visceral reality of sex and food make those the chief targets of what I think can be called temptation politics in the church. We are considered lustful or gluttonous most times and our inclinations are always toward satisfying these two things we are told. Or are they?

I am a pessimist by temperament, which is why fundamentalism appeals to me.  I can easily believe that humans will do the worst thing in all circumstances. However, if I’m honest with myself, I have to concede that there is equal evidence to the contrary; that humans more often than not do the generous thing and it’s been proven to me over and over (thank you Pelagius). Yet, temptation from the pessimists view stems directly from the Augustinian approach to Genesis and to that doctrinal bugaboo called “Original Sin.”  It’s always fascinating to me that in the Adam and Eve myth in Genesis 1 and 2, God put into a mythical Garden a man and then what does he (sic) put in next? No, not the animals, even though they did go in next. No, God puts in Eve and a tree to eat from (e.g.  sex and food). (foot note 1) And yet…. and yet, God puts in another tree and says, Don’t Eat This. Now really, was that necessary? I ask you.

I would argue that God knew exactly what he was doing by introducing all the things necessary for a good and reasonable and happy life in that Garden. You know what Adam was probably thinking, “SWEET! Two things that any man could want; sex and food” objectifying both of course.  Both sex and food seem to me to be necessary processes to life in general and necessary to help us learn and grow. God knew full well that life in the Garden would have its limits and that his “children” would be unhappy. Like an obedient child Adam took the instructions God gave him literally, but Eve, bless her, decided she was going to trust that this God knew what was good for both of them and gave her the tools necessary to bring it about; in other words, the implications were more important than the outright commands. She was probably thinking, “Food and sex are great, but really, what’s it all for?” Besides that, God didn’t tell her not to touch the tree, he only told Adam, who always had to have things spelled out for him and probably was a little scrupulous to boot. So Eve took it upon herself to find out what that other tree was all about and voila! The model for modern sexual relationships was born, well at least the heterosexual ones anyway, and knowledge of good and evil fell into the world in one stroke. Pandora’s box in Hebrew form. Hmmm, yes. This story does sound suspiciously like one of those etiological myths that attempt to explain how things came about after the fact. A biblical “Just-so” story if you will. Interesting. The Hebrews were probably working up to something here and had to cover all the bases when they were recreating their religion from scratch. (see footnote 2)

So, back to temptation. Rather than look at temptation as something that makes us stray from the tried and true and even worse as a command to never question our situations, why not look at temptation as a way to further personal growth? Temptation could merely be opportunities to see things in a new way and perhaps change course because of them. Now I’m not saying giving into drug abuse as a temptation is an opportunity to growth. Discernment in this area is needed. But isn’t that the key to everything? Discernment? Why must biblical myths always be interpreted as dire warnings about impulses God knew very well we would have and even built them into the “Garden” to prove it? We are all born with drives common to the majority of us. The trick is to separate the trivial temptations from the ones that inspire growth. Can we possibly distinguish between the two? And this is where individual conscience and discernment come in. Much like how I’ve had to teach myself to read the bible with a critical eye, I’ve also had to learn which things are “temptations” and which things are true nudges to move in a new direction.

In that case, I would ask my own questions for journaling:

  • Where is the balance between being satisfied with the familiar and stretching our horizons?
  • Where’s the balance between self-justification and rationalization of “sin” and knowing what’s good for our lives and acting on it?
  • How can we move beyond mere proscription and into a mature decision-making mindset?
  • When is it good to part company with established dogma when it runs counter to what we know to be true from experience?
  • How does the fundamentalist wash cycle of “sin, repent, rinse, and repeat” defeat the purpose of living life in a loving, purposeful, and fulfilling manner?
  • And finally, where in all this does the role of individual conscience begin and where does adherence to ancient “principles” end if the ancient principle no longer fit into modern society?

Discuss…. or better yet…. Journal!

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Footnote 1:

We won’t get into the feminist issues of the bible’s claim that Eve was created “for” Adam and not as an active agent in her own right. It’s obvious the biblical myth makes Eve simply a biological tool for Adam’s libido to act upon and a “foil” for what comes next. This interpretation is a necessary dogma of fundamentalism and every fundamentalist religion reinforces this idea; women are made for men’s USE. Period. That’s what it boils down to when you toss aside all the “yes, buts” they offer in rejoinder. Women are to produce men’s offspring and take care of all men’s needs.  That’s it.

Footnote 2:

Here’s one very good reason the bible cannot be taken literally as written and especially Genesis, nor can we see it as any way chronologically set down by God. Notice the injunction inserted into Genesis 2:24 which says that a “man shall leave father and mother, etc.” Uh, forgive the obvious, but there were no parents at this point, only Adam and Eve, right? Who’s speaking here? Who’s father and mother? And if Adam’s is not meant, who’s? There aren’t even any children to lecture at this point.